I’ve always liked Three Dog Night but entirely as a band I hear on the radio. Prior to doing this post, I couldn’t name one single album of theirs nor was I 100% certain I could name six tunes I dug. But I could and did. I will overlook “Joy to the World” which is probably fun to sing at a wedding reception especially if you’re totally fucked-up.
First, as always, a little history. I’m relying on Wikipedia and whatever else I can find because their website bio is less history and more “ain’t we swell’ puff piece.
Three Dog Night is an American rock band formed in 1967, with founding members consisting of vocalists Danny Hutton, Cory Wells, and Chuck Negron. This lineup was soon augmented by Jimmy Greenspoon (keyboards), Joe Schermie (bass), Michael Allsup (guitar), and Floyd Sneed (drums).
The band’s name came from a magazine article about Aboriginal Australians, in which it was explained that on cold nights they would customarily sleep in a hole in the ground while embracing a dingo, a native species of wild dog. (“The dingo ate my baby!”). On colder nights they would sleep with two dogs and if the night were freezing, it was a “three dog night.”
The band made its official debut in 1968 at the Whisky a Go Go, at a press party hosted by Dunhill Records. Their combination of harmony vocals and pop-rock went over well with the crowd. Their eponymous debut album was released in that same year and was a hit. And they were off.
I don’t necessarily do these posts in any sort of chronological order. So I’ll start off with “Mama Told Me (Not To Come.)” The thing to know about this band is that despite the fact there were like, 37 guys in the band, no one seemed to emerge as a songwriter. Most of their hits were interpretations of other people’s songs.
And so, “Mama” is a Randy Newman tune. Newman says that the song was “inspired by his own lighthearted reflection on the Los Angeles music scene of the late 1960s.” As always, Newman is a character in his own song, totally gobsmacked by the wildness of the scene.
I think my favorite Three Dog Night song may well be “Liar” with its incriminating shouts. It was written by Russ Ballard of Argent but never much made the charts for that band:
I wrote about the late Laura Nyro a while back. I speculated on what “Eli’s Coming” might be about. According to the (because it’s on the Internet) always reliable Songfacts, “the song suggests the singer was one of Eli’s conquests and she pleads with her friend, or herself, not to make the same mistake. She begins with a quiet warning that builds into an explosion of aggressive multi-tracked harmonies and lush orchestration, as if she’s screaming at her friend to listen, before settling back into repose.”
Chuck Negron was one of the original vocalists and was one of the original wild men of rock ‘n roll.* He wrote an autobio called Three Dog Nightmare which is definitely on my to-read list. I remember when it came out. In addition to the usual tales of drug abuse, what makes it stand out is this story that he also recounted on Howard Stern’s show:
“Negron retold a story, that was in his autobiography, about a time he was having sex, back in the early 1970s when Three Dog Night was at their zenith. He was having sex CONSTANTLY during this period (4, 5 girls a night) and this particular time his dick started to bleed profusely. The shaft of his dick split lengthwise.** He went to the emergency room and the doctors were not shocked saying ” Yeah…we see this in men who have a lot of sex.” (Yes, yes, we find there is a definite downside – ME.)
The band apparently were fans of Hoyt Axton who also wrote the aforementioned “Joy to the World.” This is an Axton song I dig called “Never Been to Spain.”
In 1968, the then-shocking musical Hair hit Broadway. It was a loosely-plotted play about hippies and Vietnam and free love and all that good Sixties shit. I’ve never seen the play but I still have the original cast album (with Diane Keaton in the mix) and it’s a really good score.
“Easy to Be Hard” is a tune about how people can care about the suffering masses but who can sometimes treat the ones they love like shit:
How can people be so heartless
You know I’m hung up on you
Easy to give in
Easy to help out.
As we end this tale of music and debauchery, we circle back to the first song on their debut album which became a pretty good-size hit. Not only were the band great interpreters of songs, they had good taste in songwriters. The song is “One” by the late, great Harry Nilsson.
Nilsson wrote the song after calling someone and getting a busy signal. He stayed on the line listening to the “beep, beep, beep, beep…” tone, writing the song. The busy signal became the opening notes.
The band (or whatever’s left of them) are touring and I’d be tempted to sit in a small club if only for shits and grins. But I’m not yet ready to go back to the clubs.
*I listened to a podcast where Negron says and he another guy bought 5,000 Seconals, each getting 2500
**On hearing the dick story, a later girlfriend gave him a toy hot dog that played “Easy to Be Hard” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”